Cephas Toninga (left) and Gerald Sowah teach a broader view of Africa in a course called Cinematic Portraits of Africa.

Students teach broader view of Africa

April 07, 2014

Gerald Sowah ’14 and Cephas Toninga ’14 want to dispel myths and misconceptions about Africa.

“We want to paint a more realistic picture by telling a two-sided story,” Sowah says. The two are teaching a seven-week, one-credit class called Cinematic Portraits of Africa. They describe the course as a film and discussion class. Sowah, a politics major, is a film enthusiast from Accra, Ghana. Toninga also is a politics major, but he moved from Ghana to Nashville, Tenn., when he was 14.

For the course, Sowah and Toninga selected articles, documentaries and films including The Gods Must Be Crazy, Blood Diamonds, Taxi Sisters, Nollywood Babylon and Madonna’s I Am Because We Are.

Seeking a balanced view of Africa

“Africa is one of the most misrepresented and misunderstood places in the world,” Toninga says. “We have our problems, yes, but everybody in the world has constantly been telling Africa how to catch up, and this has taken its toll on its identity. I want Africa to be viewed correctly. Personally, I want to give people a broader view of Africa.”

The Africa that Sowah and Toninga hold dear is quite different from the one they see depicted on CNN or the BBC.

“I grew up in modest economic circumstances, but I grew up with love and with a strong sense of family,” Toninga explains. “Family is your safety net, and here in the U.S. structurally there is no institution that can handle that.”

In fact, his childhood home in Ghana was home to many family members, even a distant relative of a distant relative that he calls a brother and who still lives with his mother.

“I had a good upbringing,” he continues. “In the Africa where I grew up there was not a lot of materialism.”

Toninga says every time he saw a news story about Africa he was disappointed. He remembered always wondering why war or demeaning portraits of Africa were shown.

“I knew how in the media Africans were relegated to poor half-naked women and shaggy looking guys with guns sitting in the desert or kids picking from the trash heap,” he explains. “We never see the peace, the hope and the contentment. The reality of some people is not the complete story.

Toninga says he never encountered materialism and the stress of debt and credit until he moved to the U.S.

“The bank handles everything here — mortgage, bill payments,” he explains. “It’s an unnecessary layer that separates people.”

Overcoming stereotypes

Several other surprises awaited Toninga when he enrolled in the American education system, including English teachers who were amazed when he earned the highest grades in the class.

“I don’t know if English is my first or second language,” he explains. “I don’t know which one I learned first.”

Immediately upon arriving in the U.S., he felt misunderstood.

“When you have an assumption about a person and you go into a discussion, there is a level of conversation that you can’t have,” he explains. “I had to learn to be more focused, so that I was in a better place to help those around me to learn as well.”

“We’re also trying to tell Africans that they have a varied culture and background that isn’t so perverted that it is sometimes made to be,” Sowah says. “We are not trying to defend all the injustices that exist there; we’re just trying to show that Africa is a continent filled with very diverse people — diverse in languages, language variations, culture and race.”

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